Brynn Tannehill is a former Navy helicopter pilot who condemns the actions of Bradley—now Chelsea—Manning. Tannehill used to fly naval attack helicopters, not entirely unlike the Apache helicopters shown in “Collateral Murder,” the video Manning sent to WikiLeaks revealing U.S. air strikes in Baghdad that left two Reuters journalists and a number of unarmed people dead. But after working as a pilot and analyst over 10 years and four deployments, Tannehill had to drop out of the military in 2010, when she began transitioning from a man to a woman.
Tannehill, who is now the director of advocacy at SPART*A, an organization that advocates for the rights of trans men and women serving in the military, worries Manning’s actions reflect badly on trans service members. “If you’re wondering if she’s being embraced as a hero in the military trans community, she is absolutely not,” Tannehill says. “People in our group can empathize with the strain that being transgender and closeted in the military causes, but we do not in any way, shape, or form think this excuses or mitigates what she did.”
The U.S. military doesn’t allow openly trans men and women to serve, even though it’s estimated that 20 percent of trans people have served, compared to 10 percent of the general U.S. population. Trans members of the military are allowed to serve openly in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Spain, but a U.S. military regulation dating back to the 1970s classifies gender dysphoria as a “psychosexual condition” or, alternately, as proof of a “history of abnormalities or defects of the genitalia.” According to the Department of Defense, trans people are physically unfit to serve.
In April 2010, Manning told a supervisor about struggling with her gender identity, and talked with a counselor about how someone transitions from male to female. “The problem is that someone who’s trans, they have no idea if the therapist is going to turn them in,” Tannehill says. “Talking to anybody is always a crapshoot.”
In online chats that May with Adrian Lamo, the computer hacker who ultimately gave Manning up to the authorities, Manning mentioned wanting to transition five times. In the chats, Manning described herself as “very effeminate” growing up and said kids at school would call her “girly boy.” She mentions wanting to try living as a woman when she came home from deployment. Manning best described her internal gender struggle in computer hardware terms:
“(1:13:10 PM) bradass87: i just… dont wish to be a part of it… at least not now… im not ready… i wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as boy…
(1:14:11 PM) bradass87: i’ve totally lost my mind… i make no sense… the CPU is not made for this motherboard…”
Lauren McNamara, a trans woman who occasionally chatted with Manning online in 2009, compares the misconceptions we have about gender dysphoria to depression and anxiety. It’s often viewed as a mental defect, not a treatable medical condition. Like those who suffer from depression, there’s a high rate of suicide for trans people—in one survey, 41 percent of trans people said they had attempted to kill themselves, compared to 1.6 percent of the general population. “Gender dysphoria is effectively a life-threatening condition,” McNamara says. “This is no different than denying someone access to blood pressure medication or antibiotics.”
The American Psychological Association has called for an end to policies that discriminate against trans workers. Until recently, the American Psychiatric Association categorized all forms of gender dysphoria as a mental condition, but updated their definition to distinguish dysphoria from other, nonclinical forms of gender expression: “It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.”
Chelsea Manning’s coming out as a woman does not automatically make her a heroic figure—for that, trans service members already have Kristin Beck, who served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and was a member of SEAL Team 6. Indeed, some members of the trans community took strong exception to the way Manning’s legal team coopted gender dysphoria for her defense. Jacob Eleazer, a SPART*A chapter leader, was one. He counsels trans service members through a secretive online group where members can seek legal advice and support. Eleazer objected to the defense’s argument that Manning’s gender dysphoria contributed to giving up thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. “It’s appropriate for the defense to zealously do everything that they can in order to defend their client, but I also see where that defense is problematic for the trans community in general,” he says. “We have a lot of trans people serving right now, and they aren’t committing treason.”